Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Review


For many, Prisoner of Azkaban marks the apex of the Harry Potter film series. I don’t share that belief, but I do think it’s one of the series’ better entries. Somewhat ironically, most of my issues stem from the narrative itself. I think Prisoner of Azkaban is easily the weakest novel in the series, and there’s only so much director Alfonso Cuaron (Yay! No more Chris Columbus!) can do. Stylistically, the film is on another level than its predecessors, but Cuaron doesn’t quite find the magic formula that makes this convoluted and frustrating story work perfectly on screen.

After two incredible years at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is once again stuck on Privet Drive with his cruel relatives, the Dursleys. When Harry’s Aunt Marge (Pam Ferris) sets him off, he runs away and is whisked away to the wizarding world, where he fully expects to be expelled from school. Strangely, the adult wizards in his life don’t seem to care about what he did. Instead, they are concerned for his safety, for notorious mass murderer Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has escaped from Azkaban, or wizarding prison.

Once back at school, Harry is forced to confront an embarrassing weakness—a penchant for fainting when in the presence of a dementor, the guards of Azkaban who are searching high and low for Black. He does so with the help of a kindly new professor, Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), but it’s the help of his best friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) that he’ll need if he’s going to survive his third year because Sirius Black has escaped Azkaban for a reason, and that reason is at Hogwarts.

It’s hard to get much into the specifics of my problems with the narrative without spoiling it completely, but I can say that I think the film suffers from the absence of Voldemort. The stakes don’t feel as high because the villain isn’t as strong. In order to compensate, Rowling made the ending a little too elaborate, and it shows in the film, lasting nearly an hour and still not properly developing and explaining everything that happens.

With Cuaron onboard, however, the film remains a success. He isn’t afraid to take a chance, and he doesn’t shy away from making Hogwarts his own. A lot of the changes are small (like the fact that he dressed the students in regular clothes rather than robes), but more so than any other director behind a Harry Potter film, Cuaron makes his film stand out.

Our three main actors are starting to improve, especially when compared to Chamber of Secrets. The role of Harry Potter is becoming more demanding, but luckily Daniel Radcliffe is proving to be up for the challenge. The teen angst that plagues the character throughout the middle books in the series begins here, and the young actor handles it well. It doesn’t become unbearable, but we get glimpses of an imperfect Harry, and in this film, that’s about all he needs to do. Rupert Grint still doesn’t have a lot to do emotionally (he never really does), but he’s solid and always makes his presence felt. Emma Watson needed to bring her character out of the annoying, know-it-all stages of the first film, and she does so marginally here.

As always, the supporting cast kills it. Of course, this film is memorable for being the first with Michael Gambon in the role of Dumbledore. He’s definitely a different Dumbledore than Richard Harris—a lot more comedic, I’d say—but part of that falls in line with Cuaron’s tone. Three other newcomers make good first impressions. David Thewlis’ Lupin is as kind and thoughtful as he was on the written page. Gary Oldman is a chameleon as Sirius Black. And Emma Thompson is just a hoot as Professor Trelawney, a fraud who sees danger in absolutely everyone’s future.

So while I can’t say Prisoner of Azkaban is the gem many claim it to be, it’s still a better-than-average Potter flick that holds up well years later thanks to its memorable direction and unique feel. I would’ve loved to see Cuaron tackle one of the series’ better novels, but unfortunately he came on board for this one. He gives it his all, and you can’t ask for much more than that.

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